Drinking Water:

Projects That May Damage Sole Source Aquifers Are Not Always Identified

RCED-93-4: Published: Oct 13, 1992. Publicly Released: Nov 12, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO: (1) reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act's sole-source provisions; (2) gathered information about whether the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA) followed established procedures for referring two highway projects located over the Edwards Aquifer in Texas to EPA for review; and (3) examined whether there are potential nationwide weaknesses in the mechanisms that trigger reviews of federal financially assisted projects that may contaminate sole-source aquifers.

GAO found that: (1) according to the provisions of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between FHwA and EPA, FHwA should have referred one of the two highway projects in Texas to EPA for possible review but did not; (2) groundwater officials from most of EPA regional offices indicated that there are weaknesses in the principal mechanisms used to identify projects for possible EPA review; (3) the sole-source provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act do not require federal agencies to refer projects to EPA for possible review, and EPA does not have adequate resources to identify projects on its own; (4) EPA has negotiated MOU with some federal agencies specifying the types of projects that should be referred to EPA; and (5) most regional officials are concerned that the existing MOU are not effectively identifying all projects that should be referred to EPA.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Safe Drinking Water Act was reauthorized in August 1996 and did not contain any language that addressed the recommendations. No further congressional action is planned.

    Matter: Because some projects that should be reviewed by EPA under the Sole Source Aquifer Protection Program are not currently being identified, Congress should amend section 1424(e) of the Safe Drinking Water Act to require federal agencies sponsoring projects in sole-source aquifer areas to submit to EPA a description of the project, an assessment of whether or not the project poses a risk to the sole-source aquifer, and documentation supporting the assessment. EPA could then examine the inventory of submissions to identify higher-risk projects that warrant more detailed review.


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